If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front – Movie Review

Now locked down as a terrorist in America’s CMU system, ELF activist Daniel McGowan lit more than a few fires.


A simmering documentary from the heartland of American political activism, “If a Tree Falls” is the story of the Earth Liberation Front and its radical actions in support of America’s old growth forests. Outgunned, out manned and out-moneyed by entrenched business interests, ELF is committed to stopping the free-fall of forests, the last front against global warming.

American corporate logging is committed to taking out the biggest trees possible at the fastest possible rate. The bigger the tree, the more efficient the cutting, transportation and dimensional lumber slicing and dicing that brings wood to the building construction market. Newly replanted trees take a long time to grow and are smaller and less profitable to harvest.

In cutting up the smaller trees, there is more waste and smaller dimensional lumber produced. Hence, smaller profits.

Although the industry does replant and harvest sustainably, that is not where the money is. The money is in the big, old, compact, hard timber that forms the backbone of America’s remaining forests.

ELF has drawn a line in the sand and uber-activist Daniel McGowan has, literally, put his life on the line to stop old growth harvesting and force timber interests to stick to sustainable harvesting.

In doing this, he committed, and confessed to, arson, in the burning of corporate headquarters and facilities that are directly or indirectly a part of this industry.

This film is a creditable and balanced look at both sides of the logging issue. ELF has burned down buildings, although they have done so in as surgical a manner as can be imagined. This does not justify the act of arson, which inevitably carries with it the possible of bodily injury or death.

People can be killed inadvertently and firefighters can be killed fighting the flames. As it turns out, no deaths or injuries have occurred because of the acts of which McGowan is accused.

The political message of the film deals with the issue of terrorism against corporations as compared to terrorism against persons. We all recognize terrorism against persons. It happens every day around the world and has happened in America.

Labeling the destruction of corporate property as terrorism is less well defined (the most prominent muddying example being our venerable Boston Tea Party).

The sustainable equation is one of “taxing” America and the global environment through the removal of old growth timber and the subsequent destruction of irreplaceable wildlife habitat, the extinction of species and the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).

CO2 is the primary cause of global warming which is blamed for major shifts in the earth’s climate and biology, ranging from increased flooding and hurricanes to decreased Arctic and Antarctic habitats.

Throughout history, people pushed to the limit by overwhelming political and economic power have taken matters into their own hands. Enter ELF and McGowan.

A good political documentary can do no more than show both sides of what is an irreconcilable confrontation. The audience will always be left to draw their own conclusions and reach their own opinions.

This documentary does exactly that. It does not present either ELF or the timber industry as the champions in this situation. Rather, it exposes as much of the truth as possible and presents it in a clear, understandable screenplay.

The taxing of the global environment continues and we all profit, directly or indirectly, through cheaper heating, air conditioning, houses, cars and fuel. Perhaps this film fills out another dimension of this problem and, at least, puts words and images to a problem that will not go away.

McGowan has pled guilty to arson and was incarcerated as a terrorist in America’s federal Communication Management Unit (CMU) system where inmates have virtually no contact with the outside world. This film is an invitation, and an initiation, to follow his story further.

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Written and Directed by: Marshall Curry
Featuring: Daniel McGowen, ELF activist
Release Date: October 11, 2011
MPAA: Not Rated
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Country: USA
Language: English
Color: Color